As another London club closes, Amsterdam shows why we need a “night mayor”

A DJ at work – albeit in Singapore, not Amsterdam or London. Image: Getty.

If you like going dancing in London, you’ve probably heard the bad news already. Dance Tunnel, the intimate Dalston club that has hosted DJs like Prosumer, Tama Sumo and Ben UFO, will close in August.

In an announcement on Facebook, the club said that “the licensing climate in Hackney has made it impossible for us to get the hours we need to make Dance Tunnel sustainable in the long term”.

Their problem is that te club fills up at midnight, and its license only extends to 3am – and three hours of bar take isn’t paying the bills. (The door money usually goes to outside promoters.) A 5am license would allow it to earn enough to continue; but aside from occasionally using Temporary Event Notices (TENs), which are difficult to come by in Dalston’s Special Policy Area, that’s just not going to happen.

At first glance, this seems like a cut-and-dried case of a local council putting their foot down on a thriving, well-regulated business that brings worldwide renown to their borough, whilst paying business rates and employing young people. But it might not be as simple as that: Hackney council released its own statement, defending the decision and noting that Dance Tunnel “has not applied to extend their opening hours for over two years”.

The club then issued another statement, in which it said that its “future lies elsewhere” – and that it would “look further afield to find a space where we are subject to fewer compromises”. So it looks like they’ve decided to pick another battle – or at least another battlefield.

Dance Tunnel is just a 200-capacity venue – but news of its closure was trending on Twitter within hours and was even covered by the BBC. More is at stake here than just a few clubbers’ good times (though one wonders where Hackney Council thinks these people will go, if they keep losing legal venues to party in). The recent spate of club closures are an attack on exactly the kind of entrepreneurship London should be encouraging.

One possible solution to the problem – one the mayor’s office got behind late last year, via a recommendation by the Music Venues Taskforce – is to create a “nightlife champion”. This could be an individual (a “night mayor”); or a committee, like the Club Commission at work in Berlin.

Alan Miller is chair of the Night Time Industry Association (NTIA), a lobbying group established last year. He argues that such a group could “act as a conduit between business and policymakers, and understand the cultural ramifications, as well as the economic benefits, of what happens in nightlife.

“There’s a big gap of understanding in Britain and especially in London about the cultural, economic and social benefits of nightlife,” he continues. “It’s not only about national insurance, business rates, employment and generating 6 per cent of Britain’s GDP – I’m talking about ourselves as a brand, how we find artists like Adele and Tinie Tempah and Mark Ronson, but also somewhere people get inspired by new fashion trends, art, or by tech.”

In Amsterdam, night mayor Mirik Milan – formery a club promoter of 10 years’ standing – has been in office since 2012 (the year Dance Tunnel opened). He heads an independent, non-profit foundation, whose job is to ensure the city’s nightlife remains dynamic. Last year, he told Time Out what that means:

“We try to build bridges between the mayor and city council, small business owners like nightclubs, venues and promoters and city residents. Nightlife is a world which is difficult to penetrate, and I always say: ‘How can you maintain a culture if you don’t have any clue what’s going on?’”

Milan’s biggest success has been the introduction of 24-hour licenses – for example at De School, the new venue from the group behind Trouw, which closed last year. As he told Time Out, “Clubs benefit from it because they can go on longer, and the surrounding neighbourhood benefits because it’s not like at four in the morning a thousand people suddenly hit the street, all at once.”

Amsterdam’s new 24-hour venues are mainly out of town – unlike London’s venues, which often exist in increasingly residential neighbourhoods. (The Music Venues Trust has recently won a big legislative victory here.)


But the Dutch example can still be of relevance. Amsterdam’s Rembrandtplein, an area which Milan likens to Leicester Square, is now part of a three-year pilot project to reduce the 300 odd violent incidents that were formerly reported each year. This involves taking an approach more like running a music festival: “There you’ll have, like, 20,000 people,” Milan told the Guardian last month. “Maybe two get pick-pocketed, and there’s one fight. It’s because you have easy-on, easy-off access, clear routes around the site, a programme and rules that everyone knows and understands, soft security … Basically, a pleasant environment.”In other words, Amsterdam treats nightlife destinations as events – and the people in them as informed participants, not potential criminals.

The mayor’s Night Time Commission is still looking into what can be done to save London’s battered but unbowed night time culture. It’s due to report its findings in the autumn, after a six-month study that was announced in March.

Those findings can’t come soon enough. As Miles Simpson – promoter of Thunder, one of Dance Tunnel’s most popular events – points out, just because there aren’t legal parties on offer, that doesn’t mean that people will just go home quietly.

Venues like Dance Tunnel are “professionally run by people dedicated to delivering a high quality and safe environment where people can enjoy themselves,” he says. But legal restrictions mean they are getting “squeezed out of existence, leaving people to party in dangerous, unlicensed firetraps, in shop basements and disused warehouses.

“It’s a sad loss to London nightlife, but it certainly isn’t the first in recent times,” he adds. “And I fear it won’t be the last either.”

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.